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Bridgeville Public Library_

Font. The Sourcebook

by Nadine Monem, Editor
Black Dog Publishing, London, UK, 2008
320 pp., illus. 500 b/w, colour. Paper, UK £24.95; US $45.00
ISBN13: 978-1-906155-41-4.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute


Font. The Sourcebook offers a multi-faceted discussion of the history of typeface, articles by typographers and a profile of 50 noteworthy fonts in use today.  The book opens by telling us that the story of typography is the study of human communication.  Endeavoring to show this, the book argues that both the printed word and the form of that word has influenced---and been influenced by---the content of history, politics, technological invention and artistic innovation throughout the entirety of human culture. The tendency to use the words type (or typeface) interchangeably with font is an aspect of this evolution. Today, the term font is also often used as a metonym for typeface although in traditional typography the terms font and type were not interchangeable.  A font was historically defined as a given alphabet and its associated characters in a single size, while a typeface is a set of one or more fonts, in one or more sizes.  A key factor here is that a typeface is designed with stylistic unity, each comprising a coordinated set of glyphs.

Part one offers the historical narrative of typeface. Here the editors present various technological markers that chart developments in type and printing, including the multitude of creative interventions that have driven types evolution.  As the story unfolds it becomes clear why the terms font and typeface are frequently conflated today.  In addition to the chronology, each chapter includes an essay by someone working in the field today.  The essays, which were curiously unrelated to the information in the chapters, would have worked better in a separate section.

Part two opens with a few schematic drawings that provide an “anatomy” of type and then provides a resource of some of the most noteworthy typefaces in use today.  Each font presented is paired with a summary exploring its origin and distinctive aspects.  These introductions also briefly analyze each font’s place in the wider history of type.

Although billed as a comprehensive account that “includes comment and analysis by some of the world's leading typographers, graphic designers and critics,” I found the book quite disappointing overall, though strong in some areas.  Generally, this publication will primarily appeal to those who are interested in the Western history of type, particularly recent technological innovations from the nineteenth century through the digital age. The historical story begins to hit its stride with Chapters 5-7.

Chapter 5, the “Move to the Modern” begins to chart the end of the manuscript tradition, the ushering in of the printed book in earnest and the activities of the early typesetters and typographers.  Chapter 6, on mechanization, presents the benefits of early lithographic printing and the development of the linotype machine; while Chapter 7 “Art and Style,” shows how the changing technologies transformed art and the printing industry.  Looking at the various aesthetic movements and the development of typefaces many of us know (Helvetica, Times, Futura) it is clear that design and type had a rich history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Art Nouveau, the Bauhaus, Constructionism and Futurism.  Leonardo readers will no doubt enjoy the discussion of how innovations grew from the efforts of the artists to reconcile the demands of good design with modern industrial production.  One interesting example is the examination of the book and typeface designs of the artist William Morris.  Another compelling discussion speaks of the urge for a simplicity and clarity that would promote meaning above argument that took place within the Bauhaus.  In this case, we find that artists like Lásló Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer were quite involved with re-thinking typeface.  They were among the first to propose the use of sans serifed alphabets and the rejection of upper case letters as extraneous.

Contemporary readers will no doubt relish Chapter 8 the most because many of us know digital fonts first-hand.  Prior to the computer revolution, design and typesetting were closely related but the actual “marriage” of graphic design and typography came about through the development of software programs that facilitated in publishing and advertising.  Most readers of the book are probably familiar with PostScript Type, PDF and software like Adobe Illustrator.  Those of us who are a bit older will remember some of the fascinating history that preceded these developments.

I was particularly taken with the overview of Letraset, initially developed in 1956 by Charles Davies.  It could be said that this innovation first brought type to the people, so to speak.  Each Letraset sheet contained a particular typeface and anyone could create a professional looking design.  The way it worked was that you transferred the letters onto your layout by rubbing the face of the film that was used to generate the typographic fonts from the Letraset sheet to the one you were designing. Reading through the Letraset section I wished I still had my old Letraset catalogs and sheets, which contained everything from typefaces to technical symbols (for equations) and decorative motifs.

The second part of Font. The Sourcebook is intended as “a reference resource for designers, artists and anyone with an interest in letterforms.”  It is well done although quite abbreviated.  Each of the 50 fonts presented includes a history of its origin and some comments on what inspired the designer.  This section begins with four pages outlining the anatomy of type that are strictly schematic.  Since the terms (Base line, tail, bracket, joint / juncture) are illustrated and not defined, these illustrations do not really provide the type of overview that I think is useful to someone who is new to letterforms and/or does not use typeface professionally.

Some good cross-referencing, particularly between the images and the text would have improved this book immensely.  When a font is discussed in the text, the reader is never directed to the resource section, (or told that the font in included there).  Even if there is an image on the page of the font discussed in the text, there is no notation in the text to direct the reader to the visual.  This suggests that although the editors understand that typography is the study of human communication, they did not give enough thought to how best to communicate their subject matter in this book, which I really wanted to like. Instead, I found the many positive aspects of the book were undone by decisions that make the presentation confusing.  For some reason, as mentioned above, the editors decided to interject interruptions, comments and analysis by some of the world's leading typographers, graphic designers and critics. These contributions (by Penguin's David Pearson, Chairman of the Type Directors Club Alex W White, Will Hill, Pentagram's Domenic Lippa, Ed Fella, Peter Bi'lak, Experimental Jetset and others) were interesting on their own terms but diffused the chronological story.  I would have preferred a historical section that was presented separately from articles, interviews and analysis, which seemed almost randomly inserted.

The sloppiness of the production similarly annoyed me.  The typos were distracting, as was the inconsistency of the text.  Font was spelled font by some authors and fount by others.  Although the figures are often quite compelling, as discussed in the previous paragraph, they were not keyed to the body of the text.  The result is that the reader may not realize there is an illustration that adds to the verbal discussion while reading the text.  This failure to walk the reader to the image, (and through it as well), makes it much harder to piece it all together.  The opaqueness of how the images and text enhanced one another was further complicated by the fact, that though that some figures were discussed, many were more tangential than a part of the discussion and, in some cases, figures were incorrectly identified.  For example, the image of a 1984 Apple Macintosh Computer, model M001 is labeled as a “Xerox 9700 printer, 1977.” The printer has the Macintosh caption.

Still, there are many high points.  I was pleased to see the movie Helvetica mentioned.  [Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture.]  I also found some of the essays quite robust, particularly David Pearson’s chapter on his first project at Penguin Books (available online at http://blackdogonline.com/media/books/pdf/Pages%20from%20FONT.pdf).

All in all, those looking for a truly comprehensive work will find this volume falls short. The development of typefaces and typography that played such a major role in linking together early societal structures such as the Persian and Roman Empires are not even mentioned. The non-Western origins and extensions of typography are only touched upon in a minimal fashion.  I was left with the sense that the authors have not looked at type from a global perspective and do not fully appreciate the reach of type’s history. I would have liked more specifics about the contributions of other cultures to the typography story.  For example, the editors barely mentioned the rich history of type in East Asia, where the use of printing from movable type arose centuries before it did in Europe. Similarly, they could have included recent typographers who work with various alphabets. Emin Barin (1913-1987), one of the greatest calligraphers, typeface designers, and graphic artists of the modern Turkish Republic comes to mind.  He was a designer who worked equally well in the Roman/Latin alphabet and the Arabic alphabet.

All in all, this volume is probably a good book for the library of designers and typographers because it has a good reference section.  Printmakers and those who are drawn to works on paper will learn some useful information about type as it relates to art projects, particularly in the Bauhaus discussion. And the book may appeal to those who like to dip for random nuggets.  But as a serious treatment of the role of typography in human communication through the millennia, the book does not match up to its lofty goals.

Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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